LINGUIST List 4.562

Mon 26 Jul 1993

Sum: Gender Markedness

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Leland Mccleary, Gender Markedness

Message 1: Gender Markedness

Date: Fri, 16 Jul 93 23:24:57 -0Gender Markedness
From: Leland Mccleary <>
Subject: Gender Markedness

On 16 Jul 93 I posted the following query:

But I wonder if we haven't been going about this whole
business of de-biasing gender in the language all wrong.

Instead of changing all the derivative words, wouldn't it be
more efficient, in this case, to establish a single new marked
form for the male gender -- something like "xoman/xomen",
"yoman/yomen" or "zoman/zomen" -- and leave the unmarked "man"
and all of its compounds to stand exclusively for both sexes.

Any comments?

The replies came in fast and furious, but seem to have died
down, so here are the highlights:

Ole Ravnholt <> comments:

While I very much sympathize with your modest proposal, I am not sure that
it will work for all languages.

I remember the heart-breaking experience some years ago of reading in the
same book (I have forgotten the reference, I'm afraid) two papers, one by
English-speaking and one by German-speaking authors. The first one
suggested doing away with all sex-biased profession names and keeping only
one for each profession:

 steward/stewardess --> steward.

Also, to avoid sexist pronouns, you should keep generic reference in the
plural so you could say "they" rather than using the clumsy "he or she" or
the obscene "he".

And the second one offered the opposite solution of always using two
profession names, because the simple, non-derivative forms would (nearly)
always be masculine:

 der Lehrer --> der Lehrer/die Lehrerin;

for generic reference in the plural you would then have to take care to
always use both:

 die Lehrer --> die Lehrer und Lehrerinnen.

The pronouns would then follw naturally, as in English.

So after all, maybe the real problem (and the real solution) is to be
sought somewhere else.

By the way: In some recent contributions to the LINGUIST list I have seen
the word "hann" used in the sense of "s/he". Quite schocking and
politically very much incorrect for us speakers of Scandinavian languages
in which "han" means "he", and is used in the same sloppy way as in English
or German: with male referents as well as with don't-care-which-sex
referents. Since "hun" is "she", maybe "hin" is a better suggestion
(phonemically maximally distant from either of the sexist words); maybe it
is a problem that "hin" means (or used to mean) "yon", but that is rather
obsolete (as in English) and not quite inappropriate anyway, is it?

John Kingston <KINGSTONcs.umass.EDU> remembered that
at least in some places, "freshman" has been "out" for some time:

but at the University of Chicago, between 1972 and 1976 at any
rate when I was there (and certainly for some interval before
and after), the terms were "first year, second year etc." rather
than "freshman, sophomore etc." ...

Mai Kuha <> relates the following

Maybe you've had experiences like the following: a couple of years ago,
I was teaching an introductory linguistics course for the first time (as
an AI). We had been discussing sexism in language, and some female
students were expressing very firm opinions. One of them (a student in
her 40's) held the view that "man" as a generic term for a person of
either sex was sexist because women "get lumped into the same word," but
also that to call a male duck a drake is sexist because the male duck
"gets a word all his own." !!

Kate Remlinger <> had this to say (I have the feeling
you didn't catch the spirit of my "modest proposal", Kate; if the
suffix -man weren't marked +male, we wouldn't have a problem. I was
suggesting, as an exercise, that we consider working on changing the
marking rather than changing the word. -LM):

The reason (one reason anyway) there has been an increasing change from
gender-marked words, such as 'freshman' to 'first-year student', is to
eliminate the semantic exclusion of women and girls. The "suffix" -man is
not unmarked--it IS marked + male and cannot stand exclusively for both
sexes. Businessman, saleman, congressman, and the plethora of other
gender-marked words in English perpetuate sexist attitudes and beliefs that
have worked, along with other cultural values, to subjugate women, to
limit their opportunities and power.

In conjunction with linguistic theories of cultural relativism and
determinism, feminist theories of language, especially those of liberal
feminists, have made a similar claim to my own above, and have been
partially responsible for making our language and our culture (I'm speaking
of the North American culture that I experience) less hostile toward

If you haven't already, perhaps you'd find interest in Dale Spender's
(1980) book, _Man Made Language_, London: Pandora; and an edition of
various papers on language and gender by Thorne, B. and Henley, N. (Eds.),
(1985) _Language and sex: Difference and dominance_. Rowley,
Massachussetts: Newbury. One paper, "The Semantic Derogation of Women",
especially addresses the issue that you are raising. Of course there are
many other writings on this topic, but these are two that seem most

Terese Thonus <> casts linguistic doubt on
the proposal:

Your idea is a very good one, but it seems to me (at least in the history
of morphology) that it's a whole lot easier to reduce than it is to add.
The Germans did it right with their "Mensch" generic; the Romance speakers
perhaps will never go through language change to avoid sexism as grammatical
gender is so ingrained and rarely linked to "real" gender at all. I suppose
I would ask someone like Arnold Zwicky or someone in historical linguistics
or history of particular languages if this sort of thing has ever been done
(purposefully or otherwise) before.

J. Clancy Clements <> wonders about other
features of the -man suffix:

One thought: the compounds in -man are lexicalized to a very large extent in
 English. I think that over time -man has taken on a semantic feature *related
to professions* or something similar. So, a businessman is someone whose
profession is in business, a milkman someone whose profession is milk (de-
livery), etc. Perhaps -woman does not possess this semantic feature.
There is one exception (which may or may not be a counterex.): cleaning woman.
Two comments on this compound: 1) cleaning man is easily coined and refers
probably to someone in industrial cleaning; 2) if it's true that compounds
like cleaning woman (i.e. X-woman, "someone whose profession is X"), then
it may be possible to conclude that -woman has a different semantic
configuration than -man and therefore does not lend itself as readily
to compound formation regarding professions.

Mysti <> also likes the idea, but doubts that there
are mechanisms for changing the default setting of +male.

Mike Picone <MPICONE%UA1VM.UA.EDUUA1VM.UA.EDU> brings the study of
neologism to bear on the question:

I don't have any original thinking on the wisdom of using a gender
neutralized _-man_ by virtue of introducing _xoman_ or something like it,
but the reason I'm writing is because I am studying neological activity
in French, including but not limited to borrowings from English. The
French have borrowed a lot of _-man_ forms and even invented a few of their
own: fauchman, tennisman, clapman, perchman, etc. Somtimes they invent
a female equivalent: tenniswoman; or add one that does not exist in
English, though the male does: coming-woman. Not all of these are still
current or widespread and some say the whole phenomenon is now less
pronounced than it was. But, to get to the point, the problems associated
with sex de-biasing are different in a language like French where gender
is much more ubiquitous than it is in English. For the sake of comparison,
I would be interested in references pertaining to the demise of _-man_
forms in English. Perhaps participants in your discussion could provide

To end on an interesting note, consider for example what happens in French
when English words are borrowed that end in agentive _er_, e.g. _leader_.
(There are lots of them.) This suffix is gender neutral in English, but
if it is to assimilate in French, it will enter into the _-eur_/_-euse_
morphological zone which is gender-dichotomous. _Leader_ in fact is usually
pronounced in French as if it carried the _-eur_ ending (+ masc.) though it
has resisted orthographic assimilation up till now. To arrive at a + fem
version, some resort to _femme leader_. But this is cumbersome and not the
kind of term a journalist could repeat more than once in an article without
appearing to be overemphasizing gender. The assimilation to _-euse_ has
happened in a few cases, but often this + fem suffix refers to a machine
or object (which of course is another interesting story charged with
sex-political pragmatics): photocopieuse, shooteuse (`syringe' in drug
vocabulary). Well, there's more to it than this, and I've simplified a
few things, but you get the idea of what kind of problems can be involved.

Steven Schaufele <> tells an anecdote about a
related (failed) "solution" and relates at least a fictional attempt to
put the "modest proposal" into effect:

Many, many years ago -- i think it was back in the early 70's, when we were
first becoming/being made aware of the sexism inherent in common English
usage, an issue was made of the fact that, whereas there was one single
mode of address for all men, irrespective of their marital status, a
woman's marital status was necessarily proclaimed by the honorific prefix
one used in addressing her. The proposed solution, which caught on pretty
quickly, was to replace 'Miss/Mrs.' by the generic 'Ms.', as opaque as the
traditional 'Mr.' There was, however, a minority suggestion to go the
other way: to reserve 'Mr.' for married men and coin a new honorific for
bachelors: 'Mt.' (pronounced, if i remember correctly, 'Mist' -- there was
some talk of resurrecting the quaint British usage of addressing underage
males as 'Master', but it was felt that no self-respecting liberated woman
would be willing to address any male as 'master', much less one younger
than herself.) At the time, i remember i was very much in favour of this
idea; i was single at the time, and very interested in letting it be known
that i was available!

The science fiction writer David Brin, in his 'uplift' stories, uses the
word 'man' very strictly and consistently to refer to any member of the
species Homo sapiens. Specifically male and female members thereof, if one
wants to specify their sex, are referred to respectively as 'mels' and
'fems'. However, there is i believe some spillover -- use of the morphemes
'mel' and 'fem' to mean 'male' and 'female' of any (sapient) Terran species
-- i'm pretty sure i remember a female dolphin being referred to as a
'fem-fin' in Uplift War.

Paul T. Kershaw <> suggests that the situation I
posit may have been the case previously in English:

Two comments:
(1) I think freshman is dying slower than chairman etc. because (At least in
my neck of the woods) there is an acceptable and widely-used abbreviation which
is gender-neutral: "frosh". Perhaps another reason is that it's not easily
broken down. A chairman is one who chairs. A fireman is one who puts out
fires. But in what way does a "freshman" "fresh"? Witness "shaman" which I
haven't seen attacked either (probably also for its rarity) as not being "sha"
(2) It was my understanding that English did have the situation you suggested,
i.e., that "man" meant "person" and something longer meant "male person" (to
wit, "werman") all those years ago. From this derives, of course, "werewolf"
-- which would be male, necessarily. A female lycanthrope must be a "wifwolf"
(or "wowolf"). (The last two words are mine own: let me nip linguistic rumor
in the bud). The fact that it changed away from the werman/woman dichotomy
suggests some sort of social problem with it, and until we fix the problem, the
form would continue to be unstable.
-- Dopobatchinye!

Forrest Richey <> is not sanguine about the
prospects of getting feminists to agree.

John Cowan <> confirms David Brin's fictional
usage and supplies additional details:

Well, David Brin's sf novels >Sundiver<, >Startide Rising<, and >The Uplift
War< use the word "man" to refer to any >Homo sapiens< (as distinct from
"'fin" for >Tursiops amicus< and "chim" for >Pan sp.<); the terms for
female and male men are "fem" and "mel" respectively. Short, English in
style, and actually workable.

I thank you all for your thoughtful and provocative observations.
The rule, I believe, is that with any marked pair, one member will serve
double duty as the generic. I was fishing for counter examples, where
there is a triad of terms, one generic and two specific, particularly
where the specifics are morphologically derived from the generic.

But now something else fascinates me: How is it that "woman" itself has
survived attack?

Leland McCleary
English / Universidade de Sao Paulo / Brasil
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